Robots to the rescue

Robots to the rescue

University of Ottawa researchers design smart devices to make rescue missions more successful
July 1, 2007
In Greek mythology, storytellers filled their tales with supernatural beings created to assist humans and gods. In Wail Gueaieb’s laboratory, such creatures will soon become reality.  
 

Gueaieb and a multidisciplinary team of colleagues at the University of Ottawa are designing Smart Autonomous Mobile Robots for Rescue Missions (SAMRRM). Like their Greek predecessors, these robots will be able to fly, crawl, creep, and of course, survive unforgiving environments. They’ll also be able to “talk” to their controllers, transmitting critical information to aid rescue.

The project is both ambitious and long-term, says Gueaieb, an assistant engineering professor at the university’s School of Information Technology and Engineering. But if the Ottawa team is successful, their robots will be one of the first on the scene of disaster sites in Canada and around the world. The idea is to send the robots into dangerous situations, ahead of human rescuers, to gather information or to operate in their place. “In many cases, it might be too dangerous to send human rescuers to a disaster zone,” Gueaieb explains. 

The television footage of Hurricane Katrina victims stranded on rooftops, waving to helicopters overhead, is one of the enduring images propelling Gueaieb’s research. Part of the problem that Louisiana rescuers faced was that they didn’t know how many people they were looking for, or where they were trapped.

Once SAMRRM robots are in widespread use, Gueaieb envisions them flying over flooded areas, using their sensors and radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to pinpoint and relay the exact location of victims—vital information to carry out a rescue mission. Although the idea of robotic assistants is not new, using RFID technology in the robots to navigate and pinpoint location is novel, Gueaieb says.

Another one of SAMRRM’s critical features will be the ability to “talk” to operators at a central console station using human-like speech, without the need for a keyboard or joystick. The researchers also plan to incorporate artificial intelligence systems so the robots can make independent decisions. That will speed up response time and make controlling the robots more intuitive, ultimately resulting in more successful rescue efforts.

Benefits

The use of robots in rescue efforts is not new, but is a field still full of untapped potential. Some police forces use robots to detonate suspicious packages, or to act as their “eyes and ears” in dangerous situations. But these robots primarily rely on tank-like tracks or wheels—not an ideal design for disaster terrain caused by earthquakes or floods, which leave behind collapsed buildings and uneven ground.

Robot researcher Wail Gueaieb hopes to unlock the potential with SAMRRM, robots built precisely to overcome difficult crisis situations. The robots he and his colleagues design will come in various shapes and sizes, and will be equipped with sensors that rescuers can add on or remove, depending on the conditions they encounter. “We can have gas-sniffing sensors, radiation sensors, temperature sensors, and we are looking into human-detection sensors to detect living from dead bodies,” Gueaieb says.

The life-saving benefits of this research are evident in many disaster areas such as the mine-studded roads in Afghanistan and the collapsed World Trade Centre. The robot rescuers would eliminate the need to compromise the safety of human rescuers in the efforts to save others. Thankfully, Canada has not yet faced such a disaster, but Gueaieb and his colleagues are particularly concerned about the earthquake and tsunami-prone West Coast. Regardless of the topology of the terrain, SAMRRM could make rescue efforts more efficient and successful by accurately assessing and responding to emergencies, and by equipping workers with the information to do the same. In light of climate change and other global issues, there is no telling how critical such robot rescuers could become.

Partners

Robots are the bread and butter of Markham, Ontario-based company, Dr Robot Inc. The firm designs, builds, and sells components and assembled robots to research institutions, surveillance firms, and even Hollywood film companies. Their robotics expertise makes them a natural partner for the University of Ottawa’s SAMRRM researchers. “Canada is quite advanced on space robotics,” says Haipeng Xie, Dr Robot's Chief Executive Officer. The challenge, says Xie, is for Canada to use robotics to generate economic growth, rather than to simply demonstrate technology, as has been the case with its space robotics program.

Gueaieb’s project not only has a practical function, it will also push the frontiers of Dr Robot’s current capabilities because of the integration of RFID technology and the need for autonomous rescue robots. “Most applications still need a human controlling the robot,” says Xie. But Dr Robot has already constructed one robot using RFID technology that allowed it to take potential customers on tours of an automotive research laboratory. Xie is confident that in conjunction with the university researchers, they will advance Canadian robotics and their applications.